But the mood hanging over the country is depressed. France is in the midst of the biggest crisis of the Fifth Republic. It feels as if the French model had reached an end stage, not just in terms of the economy, but also in politics and society. A country that long dismissed its problems is going through a painful process of adjustment to reality.
France's plight was initially apparent in the economy, which has been stagnating for five years, because French state capitalism no longer works. But the crisis reaches deeper than that. At issue is a political class that more than three quarters of the population considers corrupt, and a president who, this early in his term, is already more unpopular than any of his predecessors. At issue is a society that is more irreconcilably divided into left and right than in almost any other part of Europe. And, finally, at issue is the identity crisis of a historically dominant nation that struggles with the fact that its neighbor, Germany, now sets the tone on the continent.
The French economy has been in gradual decline for years, without any president or administration having done anything decisive about it. But now, ignoring the problems is no longer an option. The economy hasn't grown in five years and will even contract slightly this year. A record 3.26 million Frenchmen are unemployed, youth unemployment is at 26.5 percent, consumer purchasing power has declined, and consumption, which drives the French economy, is beginning to slow down, as well.
There is a more positive side of the story, which sometimes pales in the face of all the bad news. France is the world's fifth-largest economy, and interest rates for government bonds have been at historic lows for months. The country is far from being on the verge of bankruptcy and cannot be compared with Italy or Spain, and certainly not with Greece. Nevertheless, France is ailing. And looking weak is something the French themselves hate more than anything else.
This mixture of factors could jeopardize the entire European structure. For one thing, if France continues to decline, more and more responsibility will be shifted to Germany. "Germany cannot carry the euro on its shoulders alone indefinitely," writes Harvard University economist Kenneth Rogoff. "France needs to become a second anchor of growth and stability."
Another problem is that the European Union is losing its standing in France at a more dramatic pace than in any other EU member state. According to a study by the Pew Research Center, the public approval of the EU in France has declined from 60 to 41 percent in only a year. This might be owed to the uncomfortable fact that Brussels is increasingly treating France as a problem and not as one of Europe's supporting columns, and many French citizens have started to see the terms 'Brussels' and (German Chancellor) 'Angela Merkel' as synonymous.
But is the EU to blame for the France's crisis? Can Europe truly be held responsible for the fact that the government is behind 57 percent of total economic output in France? That government debt has risen to more than 90 percent of the gross domestic product? Is it Germany's fault that, for decades, French administrations have failed to make the country's business environment more competitive? And has anyone in Brussels demanded that a fifth of all workers in France be employed by the government?
France may be ailing, but it still has a lot going for it. It is home to successful major corporations, such as the luxury brand group LVMH, tire manufacturer Michelin and many pharmaceutical companies. The country has an efficient healthcare system, the highest birthrate in Europe and healthier demographics than Germany, fostered by tax breaks for families, the acceptance of working mothers as a fact of life and a corresponding system of full-day childcare.
But the French welfare state costs money, a lot of money. The country has neglected to make decisions on how much its individual achievements are worth, and how certain luxurious aspects of life it has come to appreciate could be modified to conform to not-so-luxurious realities, including the 35-hour workweek, a retirement age of 60 for some workers and unemployment benefits of up to €6,200 ($8,122) a month. As a result, there is a sense of gridlock, and a sour public mood is following on the heels of bad economic news.
France has an illustrious past, of which it is justifiably proud, but its historic success also prevents it from clearly recognizing the need for reforms. The omnipotent, bloated central government, which also controls the economy, should have been reformed long ago. The privileges of the Paris political elite are so outdated that they have become intolerable, and many bribery and corruption scandals are undermining an already fragile political legitimacy.
It cannot be accidental that France's leading politicians increasingly refer to their country as the "grande nation." Since the election campaign, President Hollande has hardly missed an opportunity to invoke the nation's greatness. With some dialectical malice, one could see this as evidence that France's greatness is now becoming a relic, but it certainly reflects the self-hypnosis of a nation whose stature is in the process of shrinking.
There is an increasingly stark contrast between the feigned grandiosity of the president's appearances and the faintheartedness of his daily actions. The obstructionism and inflexibility that prevail throughout the entire country can only be eliminated through deep-seated renewal. But so far Hollande, who promised "change" in his campaign, has been more conspicuous for his hesitation than his courage.
Since this spring, Hollande has been viewed by most commentators as the nice "Grandpa" in the Elysee Palace, who lacks the gumption to address the country's serious structural problems. The French constitution grants the office of the president more power than is allotted any other leader of the Western world. Besides, his Socialist Party holds significant majorities in the National Assembly, the Senate and even in regional governments.
In other words, Hollande could get down to business on any day he chooses. He could reform the country as he wished, if only that were his objective. But no one -- not citizens, not journalists and possibly not even his cabinet ministers -- knows what he wants and if indeed he wants anything at all.
Does he aim to be France's great reformer but lacks the courage to defy the left wing of his party, as a member of the German government believes? Or is it that he clings to his party's old formulas, wants to change as little as possible and is waiting for the day when the recovery happens on its own?
By Guylain Gustave Moke
World Affairs Expert
Photo-Credit: Agence France Presse photo of ; French President: Francois Hollande